Putting things together.
He stared out the window blankly, not really seeing the activity in the courtyard any more but only the thoughts in his mind. He was only in his forties - ancient of course to the boys he trained - but still in his prime. It was the loss of Marie, his beautiful Marie, that made him feel truly ancient. Unnoticed, a tear rolled down his cheek, but he did not blink it away. There was no one to see, and Marie was worth his tears. He held them back not out of shame, but out of knowledge that these twelve boys worshipped him and would be terrified of anything that would make him cry.
Boys did place such an inordinate amount of importance on not crying. If any of them ever became Knights, they would learn better.
It was disturbing to realize that at least one of them probably would. He knew there was a Sorceress in Timber; quite a strong one. He had felt the unmistakable aura the moment he'd landed, but it had faded too quickly for him to get a fix on it. That could only mean the Sorceress had fled - which made her a rogue. A Sorceress who had a Knight - particularly out here, where there was no training for one - would have come forward and welcomed them.
Leonhart understood Sorceresses. It was, in no uncertain terms, his job. She knew that they were here - he'd made sure of that. She would approach one of the Squires, most likely - if she hadn't feared a Knight she would have stayed to observe the landing, he was sure. But Squires were by their very nature harmless to a Sorceress. They were trained to obey her, to worship her, to do anything she asked so that she would name them Knight.
He frowned as he remembered just how many kept that attitude after being named, to the Sorceress' detriment. His fist clenched as he remembered the stupid, blind obedience of Marie's Knights when she had chosen to enter a bandit-filled wood. She hadn't known the danger - she was the Empress, and a Sorceress. And her Knight - who served as the local city governor - had known about the bandit activity and said nothing, because his lady had given him an order/. Leonhart fought to keep from punching a hole through the wall. /Damn her orders - the first duty of a Knight was to keep his Sorceress /safe/!
He had known the instant she died, as had all the other Knights. He had felt her sudden fear, even across the hundreds of miles that had separated her from his province. And that horrible, soul-tearing break when the part of him that he'd given to her - and the part of her soul that he felt - were gone forever. A lifelong wound that would never heal. The price of a Sorceress' love. In that first hot rage of his grief the Squires had scattered in terror - some of them feared him still. He would have torn those incompetent Knights limb from limb if they hadn't already fallen on their swords for failing the Sorceress and their Empress. A growl escaped his lips as he thought of that. Far too quick a death for such stupidity.
He moved away from the window and sat down at his desk, his head in his hands. It was done, there was no point in thinking about it. His eyes fell on the ring she had given him, the platinum ring with its roaring lion. Boon and bane, comfort and pain - for it held just the tiniest trace of her aura, having been made with her magic. Just enough to bring a little comfort, and at the same time remind him of the magnitude of his loss. He pulled his eyes away from it. There was work to do.
Jian was happy, coming back from his humiliating task. Which - given that he was still a teenage boy - probably meant that he had met a girl while doing his chores. It was possible that the Sorceress had approached him. None of the Squires could sense a Sorceress - that was one skill only Knights had. So the girl - whoever she was - would feel safe in approaching them.
The first task in dealing with a rogue Sorceress is to see if you can't give her a Knight. So, one by one, Leonhart would arrange for all the Squires to leave this little compound and wander Timber. They were all, in their way, handsome and likeable lads. Most would probably find local girlfriends very quickly. And the Sorceress could well find one of them to her liking. He knew his Squires; they would want him to meet their girlfriends and approve. He was, in a way, their father now. They needed his approval for their own peace of mind, to know that they could make good choices on their own.
One girlfriend would not want to meet him, he was sure. And when he heard of that one, he would know who the Sorceress was. He could then accelerate that Squire's training, push him toward Knighthood. It would only be a formality - the real making of a Knight wasn't training, but the gift-of-soul that came with being chosen. Still; training did help a new Knight take full advantage of that gift.
He'd heard of men - untrained men - who had lost all sense of self after being chosen by a Sorceress; quite understandable really. The power of the bond was incredible, at close range a Knight could feel exactly what his Sorceress felt, hear her thoughts when they touched. Men had lost themselves in that bond. It took an incredible willpower and an iron-strong sense of self to keep one's own personality in the face of it. Training as a Squire helped. It was not for nothing that Sorceresses were sometimes seen as lethal sirens, drawing men to their doom. Sometimes, that was exactly what they were - though to their credit they rarely intended to. He fought to keep his thoughts away from Marie, the laughing curve of her thoughts, the honesty of her passion - no! She was dead, and he must not think of what he could not have.
Of course, the girl might be too quick to fall into such a simple setup, but that would really depend on how much she knew of how the whole Sorceress/Knight/Squire thing worked. Leonhart would go himself into town and get to know the locals - and their daughters. The Sorceress would be found that way eventually for certain; it would just take longer.
And it had been Marie's last order to her surviving Knights. "Go and find yourself a wife," her last message read. He grimaced; he knew she had meant well. She hadn't wanted her Knights to grieve for her. But it was one of the blind spots many Sorceresses had, that they thought their Knights could just 'move on' and find someone else. After all, a Sorceress could have uncounted Knights in her lifetime. It would hurt when they died, but there were always other Knights around to comfort her. Only in those rare cases where a Sorceress chose only one Knight was the sense of loss comparable. Since suicide was not uncommon among Knights when a Sorceress died, the practice was highly discouraged.
A Knight only ever had one Sorceress. Ever. Some dealt with the loss better than others, but there was always a raw place, a broken place, in a Knight's soul when his Sorceress died. The only exception occurred when a Sorceress and a Knight had a child; at that time the father would know two loyalties. Leonhart had only ever heard rumors about that doubled bond; more like a triangle than anything else it was said. But Marie's daughter was not his, and the Knight who had fathered her had died with Marie. Idiot.
Leonhart got up from his seat and grabbed his black and silver cloak. He would not love any wife, but he would take care of her and see that she wanted for nothing. He would obey Marie's last wishes. And he would try not to let his grief show, when one of his Squires found the Sorceress.
He hoped that one of them was worthy in this new Sorceress' eyes. Because if a Sorceress refused to take a Knight, one of the Knights' jobs was to kill her before she went mad. Aside from losing one's own Sorceress, killing a rogue was the most painful duty a Knight could undertake. They identified with Sorceresses. That was their job. To the rest of the world a Sorceress was a being of power and terror, someone to worship or fear, or both. To a Knight, a Sorceress was just a girl, or a woman, trapped by circumstances beyond their control in a role that was often hard to bear. To kill her was to kill an innocent; someone who could not help what she was, and often could not help what she was doing. It was killing a beloved sister, a daughter, with a terminal illness.
As he strode out of the compound heading for Timber proper, Leonhart wondered if he had enough spirit left to handle such a task.
The squires watched their leader go without comment. The Old Lion did not take well to being questioned, and the set of his features did not bode well for any interruption of his thoughts. Kyle and Tim whispered together, probably making a wager. Quinlan looked annoyed; he still wanted to go out and meet the local girls, and having the Old Lion around would put a major bite on that.
Jian watched in puzzlement. What would the Lion want in Timber? Coming here, he understood. He had been one of the Squires around when Marie died. Great Hyne, he'd never been so scared in his life. His master was renowned as the quietest Knight of Marie's fifteen, a master of self-control. Jian shuddered, remembering the howl his master had given voice to - out of nowhere. One minute assigning squires to their daily chores, the next roaring like a wounded - yes, like a wounded lion and clutching his head as he fell to the ground, tears streaming from his eyes. Until that time, Jian had thought of lions as symbols of bravery and courage. He still did, but now there was an overriding knowledge of just how frightening a creature a lion really was, how dangerous when wounded. The Knight Leonhart had leaped to his feet and run for the gates, and anyone who got in his way got trampled - if they were lucky.
Of the twenty Squires with him that morning, only the current twelve remained when he had returned, still as a statue. Eight Squires had left their training right then and there, not wanting to ever experience whatever it had been to make such a controlled Knight lose it like that.
No, Jian quite understood his master's reasons for leaving Centra and coming here. He'd poked around after that, to find out what happened after the Lion had left his post. More than a few hapless Squires had gotten in the way; Leonhart had given vent to a stream of rancor that had caught quite a few of his brother Knights on the chin. When he learned the story, he had not been tempted to leave his master's service as some of the others had done. No...if there was a driving emotion behind Jian's actions, it was curiosity. He wanted to know more about what it was that a Sorceress and Knight were, that not being one could affect his master so. If that was the price, Jian was willing to pay it. He had to know what it was that was so precious.
What puzzled Jian was the idea of his master /socializing/, as Quinlan put it. The Old Lion was as sociable as his namesake with a toothache; in general he couldn't stand people. And he had grown less sociable since Marie's death. Yet he'd gone out in full finery.
He wondered whether Carolin could explain it to him; perhaps his master had to go speak to the Mayor or something, some stupid formality of taking up residence here.
"Hey, Twilight Boy," said a voice, and Jian turned around to see Quinlan standing there. "Don't you look a mess, with all that river crud on your boots. What's going on? You were grinning like a maniac when you came back, and soap suds are definitely not on my list of turn-ons."
Jian smiled his easy grin. "Got to socialize on punishment duty," he said. "Pretty girl was at the river."
Quinlan's blue eyes widened. "You lucky little dog," he said. "I take back half the rotten things I said about you. But /details/, man, I need /details/!"
So Jian filled him in on his afternoon, which took him quite a while. Quinlan looked envious and a little upset that his friend got a date before he could.
"Maybe I should get the Lion to punish me with something outside the gates for a while," he speculated. "We could take a bet, whether the girl I pick up is prettier than yours."
Jian nodded to the gate. "If the Lion doesn't pick up a girl prettier than both of ours," he said musingly.
Quinlan blinked. "/Him/? You've got to be kidding me. Yeah he's no old troll, but - I mean, he wouldn't even be /trying/. Get real, Jian. What town girl would go for him when /we/," and here he indicated all the Squires, "are around, and their age?"
Jian only half-heard him. He watched his leader carefully, always trying to discern his moods and patterns of thought. He didn't want to be a Squire forever, and that meant he had to defeat his master twice. Unlike most of his fellow Squires, he did not think that merely waiting for his master to be too feeble to hold a sword was an option. "I'm not sure, Quinlan," he said quietly. "I think there's something going on. I would never have figured on the Old Lion leaving his den - not so soon, anyway." He gave his friend an evil look. "But since you're the master of ceremonies, you tell me - what could he want out there, if not girls?"
Quinlan shrugged. "Like I care, Jian. I'm not hell-bent on finding a Sorceress the way you are. I'll take my training into the business sector back in Centra when I'm out of here, assuming of course that there's too few pretty girls here in Timber."
"Well, if Carolin's any indication of local beauty, you might find yourself here a long time, my friend."
Quinlan grinned predatorily. "I may just have to steal her away from you if she's pretty enough. You never know with these out-of-the-way places. She might be the exception, and all the local girls are chocobo-legged toads."
Jian shrugged. "I get to meet her again tomorrow when I'm doing the washing," he said. "If you want I'll ask if she has any friends for you to meet."
Quinlan gave him a serious nod. "You do that. I'll owe you one."
Jian gave his friend a look that clearly said he hadn't been serious. "I have to get this laundry taken care of," he said. "You may not think I fear the Lion, but I'm in terror of his punishments."
Quinlan laughed. "You're a terrible liar, Jian," he said, but took the hint and wandered off.
Carolin could sleep just about anywhere in comfort, she'd found. On the ground, up in a tree, in a bed...it didn't seem to make a lot of difference. Well - yes, it did, really. You were slightly less likely to wake up with ants in your shirt if you slept in a bed, and less likely to have to deal with scorpions if you slept in a tree. With her Sorceress' skills, she didn't have to worry about falling off a branch as she slept - her sense of balance was never off - so these days she was sleeping in trees.
Not particularly because she wanted to. She had her parents' home, and the beds there. No, these days she was sleeping in trees because she didn't want anything to do with that Knight happening where she wouldn't find out about it. The townsfolk of Timber were beginning to understand she was an orphan; they never saw her parents any more, but she occasionally still came to town, always alone. Granted that there were a few xenophobic families out here with similar habits, it was still cause for comment. The town's population wasn't large enough for people to be callous about their neighbors. She couldn't go to town and ask questions - no. The best she could do was find an out-of-the-way spot at an inn or tavern and use her Sorceress' hearing to sift through the conversations, a prospector looking for gold.
She'd heard interesting rumors when she traded tales of Jian, and what he'd said about his master. One of which was very disturbing; some of the newcomers mistrusted the Lion because before he came here, he'd gone on a rampage where not a few people had died. Of course, there were different rules for Knights, just as there were for Sorceresses. Certain behaviors were...overlooked, given a sympathetic eye. Had he been an 'average man', the Lion would have been executed. As it was, he was simply exiled. At least, so said the rumors.
Trying to match this image of a mad killer with Jian's glowing report left her more than a little confused. Someone was getting things very very wrong here, that was certain. But nothing in either version gave her any hope of mercy from the man. So she was up in a tree, slightly breathless from a full-tilt run both to and from Timber. She had chosen a tree on the side of the compound closest to Timber, and only just close enough for her to make out the colors of the moving Squires within.
It was almost with fear that she saw the Knight leave the compound, heading towards her. Oh, shit, she thought. How do I follow him without him sensing me?
Indeed, the Knight was not even fifty feet from his gate when his eyes narrowed, and he started looking around him as though seeking something. Some/one/.
Hyne, this one is strong, Carolin thought - or rather, hoped. This was her first Knight - it was depressing to think all of them could be so sensitive. What happened if the man had friends who came to visit? Immediately she dropped out of her perch and headed out at right angles to the Knight's probable route to Timber. She could parallel him if she could get far enough, fast enough.
Thankfully, she could see and hear him from farther away than he could sense her. Eventually, frowning, he quit looking around and continued on his way. Warily, this time - he knew someone was out here, he just didn't know exactly /where/.
Carolin found herself breathing rapidly, in a way thrilled to be playing such a dangerous game. But really, after all - what could he do, if he found her? She was a Sorceress, and he a man alone. She could kill him with a thought.
And set her feet on the road to madness. No, she couldn't use her powers like that. And he probably could outfight her with conventional weapons. Hyne, half of Timber could outfight her that way, even with her Sorceress' strength and speed. She shook her head, annoyed with herself, and got on with her tracking.
When he reached town it was harder to keep him in sight, and harder to filter his words out from the various citizens around him, but she managed. What she heard gave her a case of the cold shivers; he was asking - politely - after the various women of Timber, and their families, and their neighbors.
He knew there was a Sorceress around. It looked like he was trying to find her. The reactions of the townsfolk told her much; that he was respected, and a little feared, but not accepted or liked. Not yet. Timberi didn't accept you until you'd proven yourself to their satisfaction. Being a romantic wouldn't count for much with them - and that was how they saw Knights. They thought of them as men who gained their position through a woman's heart - and what else would you call such a one but a romantic?
Carolin couldn't really argue with that viewpoint, since in large part she agreed. But there was magic in play...and magic changed all the rules.
She watched the man make his rounds, making himself known to the Timberi, and carefully tracked him until he returned to his compound. There would be no soft bed tonight; if he made any further unexpected moves she wanted to know about it.
What she still didn't know was what she planned to do about it. If he was asking about women in order to find her, eventually he would. And then what?
Sudden resolve hardened in her. He would not drive her away from Timber; she would not flee into the jungles and she would not stow away on a ship for Centra. This was her home, and he had intruded on it. She would leave him alone as long as he left her alone - that was fair. But if he tried to force her to choose a knight, it would be a fight. Better to die free, than live a slave. If it drove her mad eventually...well, at least when they killed her there wouldn't be enough of what she now considered her to care very much about it.
She decided that she would return to her bed tonight, after all. It would be far more effective for her to get news from Jian as to his master's movements, than for her to spend all her time in damned undignified positions getting it herself.
The next day, Jian found himself the center of attention. Quinlan's gossipy nature had alerted all the Squires that Jian had found a pretty local girl, and everyone wanted to know about her. Since Jian was generally regarded as being slightly less capable of landing a girlfriend than Elric - who was so clumsy at everything he'd probably be in the Old Lion's service for the rest of his life - the fact that he was the first Squire to encounter a friendly female face won him a degree of respect.
He discouraged their attempts to get punishment duty by the simple expedient of not quite hitting them with the flat of his blade. The cuts were thin, but hurt like hell - and of course the Squire would have to stitch up his colors. After a while they decided it was better to fight as best they could, and try for punishment duty with a different teacher.
Lan was the only exception, as always. His weapon of choice was a double-bladed polearm, and he was unashamedly good with it. His hair was already gray, though he was only a teenager - a mark of the far eastern provinces. Jian loved sparring with him; he was incredibly serious about everything he did, and since his weapon was both weapon and defense, he could give Jian a good run for his victory.
Today, distracted as Jian was by the unaccustomed popularity, he was a deadly opponent. He swung his polearm in swift circles, so that it seemed a brown blur edged in a shining light. Jian knew well that Lan could stop that spin with the polearm in any position, so he held his shield close to his body, guarding against attack.
Spin stop - and one of the blades was scything for his knees. Jian jumped as quickly as he could, but couldn't strike back; the polearm's length stood between him and a good strike. Seeing his strike miss, Lan spun the weapon up and around and aimed it for Jian's stomach. This, Jian caught - hard - on his shield, and struck out with an attack of his own. Lan ducked forward and in a swift and complicated move spun his polearm behind his back, striking with the flat of the blade hard against Jian's legs. Jian fell, but remembered to get his shield up in time to block the throat-strike that would have given Lan the match hands-down.
Lan spoke then. "Surrender, Jian. You know I have you down." His voice was calm and flat, completely dispassionate.
Jian sighed, and lowered his shield. "I give you the match, Lan," he said ruefully. "Don't know why the guys are all happy I found a girl, it's shot my fighting to hell."
Lan backed off and set one blade of his weapon into the ground. "You shouldn't let your thoughts distract you like that," Lan said seriously. "You'd better hope the Old Lion wasn't watching you throw three years of training down the midden."
Jian got up, dusted himself off, and squinted at the windows. "No way to tell," he said. "I'm sure he'll mention it to me if he did, but meantime I've already got a punishment duty to take care of."
Lan nodded solemnly, his face expressionless. "Whoever she is, Jian, don't let her run your life. You'll never amount to anything if you can't control your thoughts." And without another word he yanked his weapon out of the ground and strode off to his next duty.
Weird guy, Lan. Great fighter, damn good at everything he was asked to do, but he never smiled. Winning his respect in any field was worth the effort. Jian was the only fighter he would spar with, other than the Lion himself. Testing him would probably be a bear; there was no real way to tell which field was his best. Or worst, for that matter. But other people? Lan couldn't seem to care whether you existed or dropped off the face of the earth. Kyle and Tim, who were so in love with wagering they were the unofficial bookies of the Squires, were taking bets on whether Lan had taken Squire's training because his parents forced him to, or because he wanted to get ahead in business once he completed it. The longest odds were given on him actually becoming a Knight; heart of stone, eyes of glass. What woman would go for that, even with his star-pale looks?
Jian gathered up the clothes that needed washing; not quite as much as yesterday, but it was more than balanced by the order to wash the sheets and blankets as well. Since he could not carry it all to the river himself without making two trips - making the possibility of losing one a lot higher - Jian decided to recruit Quinlan as an assistant. It wouldn't violate the terms of his punishment as long as Quinlan didn't actually do any washing.
Jian tried not to smile at Quinlan's obvious ploy; his friend wanted to meet the pretty girl, and had taken pains to wear the best outfit he could that would not be damaged by the river. To contrast with his auburn hair, therefore, he wore an array of greens. Like Jian, he took his weapon and shield, and his chosen device was a striking snake, its green length knotted around his shield's border. His weapon was a spiked flail; a heavy steel ball, studded with spikes, attached to a length of chain on a metal handle wrapped in leather. He was waiting at the gates when Jian brought the second stack of baskets out, then he picked up his own and followed Jian through them.
"Lead on, o crimson dragon," laughed Quinlan. "For the sight of a pretty face, I'll watch you do laundry for a fortnight."
Jian smiled, and hoped the girl would come. He probably wasn't a big threat to a native girl alone, but two against one? Not too many girls would go for that. But if she didn't show, Quinlan would spread it all over and he would be branded a liar.
Trying to keep his expectations clear, he resolutely set out for the spot on the riverbanks he'd agreed to go.